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ZRS-4 Akron

USS Akron (ZRS-4) [Z airship, R rigid, S scout] was the first of a class of two 6,500,000 cubic foot rigid airships. In 1926, congress authorized the procurement of two rigid airships. On 6 Oct 1928, contracts for the Akron and Macon (ZRS-5) were awarded to the Goodyear-Zepplin Company.

The largest of the United States Navy airships, the ZR-1 Shenandoah, was 600 feet long with a capacity of 2,115,000 cubic feet. The projected airship designed by the engineers of the Goodyear-Zepellin Company, while it had over three times the capacity of the Shenandoah, would be only 100 feet longer and of such size that it may be housed in the Lakehurst hangar. The control car will be built into the hull and streamlined. Engines of 4,800 horsepower, giving a speed of 90 miles per hour with fuel for from 5,000 to 8,000 miles will drive the ship. The air screws will be fitted in tilting mountings, which will turn in a 90 degree arc to help force the ship upward or downward as desired and greatly aid in controlling the huge vessel.

It would embody the proved structural advantages of some 135 ships built in the past. (a) Multiple gas cells which function like bulk-heading on a steamship, so that if one or more cells fail the ship will still remain aloft: (b) The triple cover system, one cover to hold the lifting gas, one consisting of the shape-forming duralumin frame-work, and an outer cover to shed rain and snow, to reflect rather than to absorb heat, and to present a fair surface; (c) invulnerability against lightning; (d) accessibility to inspection and repair. It will however present certain new features as well of far reaching importance: (a) A double or triple keel giving added longitudinal strength comparable to the breaking strength of one length of metal, as against two or three bolted together; (b) a new type of ring girder each internally braced and structurally self sufficient, which (c) will permit the control car and even the power cars to be built within the hull; (d) even fuller accessiblity to continuous inspection and permitting repairs to be made even in flight; (e) the use of new fuels to conserve helium and reduce weight.

ZRS-4 Akron was built at Akron, Ohio. She was designed to be helium-filled. This allowed the eight engines to be located inside the hull with propellers driven by shafts and gearing which allowed thrust upward, downward or reverse. A 60 by 75 foot hangar was provided to stow up to four fighters which could be launched or recovered by a retractable trapeze assembly. (This was the forerunner of the NAVAIR Lakehurst Aircraft Platform Interface mission.)

Commissioned in late October 1931, she spent virtually all of her short career on technical and operational development tasks, exploring the potential of the rigid airship as an Naval weapons system. During the remainder of 1931 and the early part of 1932, Akron made flights around the eastern United States and over the western Atlantic, including one trial of her capabilities as a scouting unit of the fleet. Damaged in a ground-handling accident at Lakehurst in late February 1932, she was again ready for flight two months later and began tests of her ability to operate an embarked unit of airplanes. These would greatly extend her reconnaissance reach and enhance her defenses against hostile air attack.

During May and June 1932, Akron was based on the West Coast, performing a successful search mission over the Pacific as part of a fleet exercise. However, a fatal accident early in this deployment, in which two Sailors lost their lives, provided further proof that handling large airships at their ground bases was an inherently risky proposition. Another accident, while leaving the hangar at Lakehurst in August, reinforced this conclusion.

Akron flew extensively during last half of 1932, further refining her airplane support and search capabilities. In January and March 1933 she twice went south, visiting Florida, Cuba and Panama to explore the base sites in the U.S. fleet's southern operating zone. While beginning a trip to the New England area, Akron encountered a violent storm over the New Jersey coast and, shortly after midnight on 4 April 1933, crashed tail-first into the sea. Only three of the seventy-six men on board survived this tragic accident. During the search for other possible survivors, the Navy non-rigid airship J-3 also crashed, killing two more men.

Soon after Akron's loss, Navy divers examined her wreckage, which was located about a hundred feet below the ocean surface east of Atlantic City, N.J. More recently, in June 2002, the research submarine NR-1 revisited the airship's crash site, where much of her collapsed framework remains visible on the Continental Shelf, nearly seventy years after the great dirigible went down.

ZRS-5 Macon

USS Macon $2.5 million in the making, sister of the 6,500,000 cubic foot rigid airship Akron (ZRS-4), was built at Akron, Ohio. The entire craft, 785 feet long, was approximately ten feet longer than the Graf Zeppelin. The rigid airship was the product of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Co., a business jointly owned by the Zeppelin Company of Germany and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Known officially as ZRS-5, the Macon was more modern and slightly faster than its sister ship, the Akron, ZRS-4, with a top speed of about 87 miles per hour. To the bewilderment of some, the craft was named the Macon, after the largest city in the Georgia district of Rep. Carl Vinson, chairman of the House committee on Naval Affairs. To those on the East Coast, the naming was considered a politically prudent move.

Unlike the blimps made by Goodyear today, the Macon had a hollow duralumin hull with three interior keels. The intent of the strong spine was to prevent the type of hull collapse that occurred with the Shenandoah. From the outside it looked and functioned much like a helium balloon. But on the inside, the ship was an open cavern of girders, cables and catwalks with few places where the crewmen could not go. The Macon and Akron were kept aloft by non-burning helium contained in 12 large gelatin-latex cells inside the craft. Before 1925, many lighter-than air craft operated on hydrogen. But the flammability of the gas proved to be very dangerous, as would be demonstrated on May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst when fire would kill 36 people aboard the German zeppelin Hindenburg. Inside the hull, the ship had eight large 560-horsepower engines driving outside propellers, one of the craft's few noisy operations. The propellers could be rotated down or backwards to control the ship during take-offs and landings.

The Macon had accommodations for 100 officers and crew, including sleeping berths, a large messroom, a galley, and observation platforms at the nose and tail. Although rigid airships were never used commercially in the United States, the key advantage to such a mode of transportation was said to be its smooth, silent motion and its speed in long-distance journeys. In short, people did not get seasick on dirigibles.

Unlike other dirigibles of the time, the Macon was so massive that it also carried its own protection - five Sparrowhawk fighter planes which were stored in the aircraft's belly. The airplanes were released via a trapeze and a harness which lowered the planes through a T-shaped hole in the Macon's underside.

Retrieving the planes, however was a much more difficult process. Like a performing air stunt, the pilots had to equal their speed to that of the ship and "catch" the trapeze with a hook at the top of the plane. The harness would then be attached to the fuselage, and the aircraft would be raised. Despite the difficulty of the maneuver, the pilots, known as the "Men on the Flying Trapeze" had a flawless record on both the Akron and Macon.

The ship also came equipped with another scouting oddity known as the "spy" car. A cable would lower the amusing-looking compartment from the airship to a point below cloud cover up to 1,000 feet. A crewman inside the spy car would then telephone back to the main control room relaying navigational information. The car acted as a sort of reverse periscope.

The Macon and the Akron were built to be the chief scouts of the Pacific Fleet, providing long-range reconnaissance. In addition to providing protection for the "aircraft of the sky," the Sparrowhawks and the "spy" car were the ships' main eyes.

She first flew on April 21, 1933, only a few weeks after Akron's tragic loss. Following a series of test flights, one of which took her from Ohio to Wisconsin and back, she was commissioned in June. Macon was based at Lakehurst, New Jersey, during mid-1933 and made several development and training flights during this time. In October she flew by way of her name city of Macon, Georgia, and Texas to Moffett Field, California, where a new airship hangar awaited her.

With nearly as much fanfare as marked the arrival of the Akron, the Macon cruised into the skies over Mountain View on Oct. 16, 1933, and docked without difficulty at its new home. "The new 785-foot air giant...was free from the oil smudges that marred the Akron's appearance on its arrival here and seemed as silvery as if she had just taken to the air," noted a Palo Alto Times story. During the next 16 months, the Macon, became a familiar and popular sight on the Peninsula, and never failed to draw large crowds whenever it took off or landed.

But there was much to be expected of this airship. A total of $7.5 million had been spent on the construction of the Macon and Akron, and the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. People in and out of the military wanted results. Almost immediately after arriving in Mountain View, the Macon was sent on maneuvers in the Pacific, but it was an inauspicious debut. During a mock battle, the ship was "shot down" twice in the first eight hours.

During the rest of 1933 Macon and her embarked airplanes began what would be an extensive program of participation in exercises off the Pacific Coast, testing her abilities for fleet scouting and other missions. In April 1934 she flew east, again via Texas, to Opa-locka, Florida. Weather damage received in this trip was repaired in time for her to participate in Fleet Problem XV in the Caribbean during May, after which she returned to Moffett Field. In 1934, Lt. Commander Herbert Wiley, one of three survivors of the Akron crash, took command of the Macon. Determined to prove the Macon's value, he quickly developed and improved the ship's long-range detection and scouting system. To put the system to the test, the Macon made a long-distance flight over the Pacific Ocean in mid-July. Macon left Moffett Field in July 1934 in an attempt to locate the cruiser CA-30 Houston that was carrying President Roosevelt through the Panama Canal en route to Honolulu. Using only newspaper accounts of the president's departure time as a guide, the Macon raced 3,500 miles to a spot in the vast Pacific Ocean where Wiley had determined they could find the Houston. They did.

During this mission her F9C "Sparrowhawk" aircraft were operated with their wheeled landing gear removed, a performance-enhancing practice that was thereafter normal when these small fighting planes were embarked on the airship. Aboard the cruiser, crewmen were shocked to see two scouting airplanes, the Sparrowhawks, come out of nowhere and circle the ship. Minutes later the Macon dramatically descended from the clouded sky and dispatched a plane that dropped bundles of the previous day's newspaper from San Francisco onto the Houston. The Fleet's admirals were not amused. Said Admiral Stanley, chief of naval operations, "We considered it a publicity stunt and that he (Wiley) had no business doing it." The president, however, was tickled. The stunt showed that the Macon was capable of the kind of scouting for which it was intended.

Further fleet exercises followed over the remaining months of 1934 and the first part of 1935. The Macon scouted for the Pacific Fleet eight times in all. These demonstrated Macon's ability, in association with her airplanes, to conduct strategic searching over the vast distances to be expected in a Pacific war. However, they also showed her vulnerability, especially in the presence of opposing airplanes, when she was used for tactical scouting close to the fleet.

When the airship left Moffett Field on Feb. 11, 1935, to go on maneuvers off the coast of Southern California, repairs had not been completed to two tail fins that had been damaged several months earlier. Because of the need for the ship and the pressure to prove its value, Navy officials had decided to do the repair work piecemeal. Largely because of that decision, this would be the ship's 54th and final flight.

During the early evening of 12 February 1935, while returning to Moffett Field from its successful mission over the ocean, USS Macon encountered a storm off Point Sur, California, south of Monterey. Suddenly, a crosswind struck the ship with such force that the upper fins of the previously damaged tail were completely severed, sending shards of metal into the rear gas cells. In the control car, the steering wheel went slack and the navigators felt the tail drop. Wiley ordered the dumping of ballast and fuel. Crewmen hurried about the ship discharging everything they could to lighten the tail. Off-duty personnel were ordered to the nose to help bring that end down. But the ship was doomed. After rising to nearly 5,000 feet, the Macon began to fall.

Moments later the ship settled gently into the water, and the crew, clad in life jackets and equipped with life rafts - features that had not been available to many of those aboard the Akron - jumped into the water safely. Ships were quickly on the scene to pull the men out. A radioman was killed when he jumped from the falling ship, and another man was lost when he apparently tried to retrieve his belongings. But in all, 81 of the 83 aboard the Macon survived the crash, including "lucky" Wiley. Though all but two of her crew were rescued, the dirigible sank in deep water, effectively ending the Navy's controversial, and trouble-plagued, program of rigid airship operations.

A commission set up to determine the cause of the ship's demise concluded that the blame belonged not to the crew, but to the Navy's refusal to repair the Macon's tail damage before it was sent on its ill-fated mission. The disastrous record of airships put the pressure on President Roosevelt to abandon the costly lighter-than-air program. The president responded by setting up a second commission, this one headed by Stanford Professor William F. Durand, to look into the future of airships. The panel found that dirigibles had been used for purposes for which they were not intended and that they had not been given a fair opportunity to prove their value to the military. The commission concluded that these lighter-than-air craft should be given another chance. They were not.

Within days of the 1935 crash of the USS Macon off the California Coast near Point Sur, efforts were made to find the wreckage, but to no avail. In 1989, the Macon Expeditionary Group headed by Richard Sands of San Francisco, a former Navy pilot, renewed efforts to find the remains. Among those involved was David Packard, founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and Gordon Wiley, son of the USS Macon's skipper, Herbert V. Wiley. Early efforts were unsuccessful. Their break came when Wiley's sister, Marie Wiley Ross, found a restaurant in Moss Landing north of Monterey that displayed a piece of metal the owners claimed came from the Macon. Ross immediately recognized its unique shape as having come from her father's ship.

After some difficulty, the group was able to find the fisherman who had pulled up the two-foot piece of metal in his nets. Fortunately, he had kept meticulous fishing records. "He told us that he had lost a whole lot of rigging at the one spot," Sands told the Peninsula Times Tribune in 1990. "He knew something was down there. He knew it was the Macon." Armed with the new coordinates, a three-man crew of the Navy deep submersible, Sea Cliff, went in search of the Macon on June 24, 1990. Within 15 minutes, the search was over.

The explorers found the twisted remains of the world's largest aircraft on a sandy perch about 1,450 feet deep and about two miles south of the site of previous searches. Among the twisted girders and gangways that comprised the skeleton-like interior of the rigid airship, the crew also found the remains of three of the Macon's Sparrowhawk fighter airplanes, their insignias still clearly visible. The final resting place of the USS Macon was no longer in doubt.

ZRS-4, 5 Specifications

Powerplant: eight 560 hp, German-built Maybach engines

Length: 785 feet

Diameter: 132 feet 9 inches

Volume 6.5 million cubic feet

Crew: 60

Max speed: 84 mph

Range: 9,200 miles at 60 mph

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:40:00 ZULU